Good news everybody — you can finally post what you always thought about how the pandemic started on Facebook without being muzzled.
The Silicon Valley giant, which has around 2.85 billion users, had been banning posts that claimed COVID-19 was man-made. But now, according to a company spokesperson, ‘In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps.’
The ‘lab-leak’ theory — that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China — has gradually gained mainstream acceptance in the months since Trump lost the election. Nicholson Baker horrified New York magazine readers in January by bringing up the hypothesis. Then more and more voices joined the chorus this month: Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin, 18 scientists in a letter to Science magazine, former NYT writer Donald McNeil Jr on Medium. Anthony Fauci U-turned on his earlier stance and said he was ‘not convinced’ that the virus developed naturally outside of a lab. This week President Biden issued a statement describing how in March he asked Jake Sullivan to ‘task the intelligence community to prepare a report on their most up-to-date analysis of the origins of COVID-19, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident’. Biden said that in this report the intelligence community had ‘“coalesced around two likely scenarios” but has not reached a conclusion.’
I can offer an ill-educated guess of what one of those two scenarios is!
The issue at heart here is how, once again, a social media site has stepped off the touchline and inserted itself into the process of deciding what is and isn’t true. Once again, Facebook has freaked out about ‘misinformation’ and overcorrected. The result? Its users were cut off from theories that could bear out to be true.
Social-media censorship used to be a classifiably fringe issue. Four or five years ago, the only people in the West complaining about ’shadowbanning’ or their ‘posts being censored’ were on the outskirts of the conservative reservation — and honestly they sounded like thin-skinned losers. ‘My photos aren’t being liked as much as they used to!’ It was easier then to imagine how posts from people like Tommy Robinson or Milo Yiannopoulos might be misleading their followers or in breach of the terms of service. Then bigger figures on the right started banging the drum: Dave Rubin, Donald Trump Jr, eventually President Trump himself.
To most people, Facebook was doing an adequate job of pretending to be an impartial umpire throughout the Trump era. But that all changed with the New York Post’s story about Hunter Biden’s ‘laptop from Hell’. Social media sites restricted the circulation of that story on the grounds that they suspected it was ‘Russian misinformation’. They inserted themselves, without invitation, into the New York Post’s editorial process. They whipped off the black-and-white umpire jerseys and joined the blue team’s O-line. In doing so, they gave far-right cranks a reason to say ‘I told you so!’
Facebook didn’t know for sure that the Hunter Biden story was ‘Russian information’. And Facebook didn’t know for sure how the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated and spread to humans. But it acted to suppress speech anyway.
Clearly Facebook is uneasy with its role in the public square. ‘It’s time for updated internet regulations,’ reads a section of their corporate website. The recent appointment of an Oversight Board also screams ‘please don’t put us in charge’. Back when the Founders were hashing out rules for how American society should work, they opened with a law that prevented Congress ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. Wouldn’t it be nice if a new set of regulations kicked Facebook out of the editorial process to stop them from doing the same thing?